It was no surprise that Jung Ho Kang would be signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates this week. The rumors first came out last week, saying that Kang would be finalizing a deal by the middle of this week. Then there were rumors at the start of this week saying that Kang had agreed to a deal, and would be flying to Pittsburgh on Wednesday. All of that happened, and the Pirates officially announced Kang’s deal today. Terms of the deal were also announced, with Kang receiving $11 M over four years, including a $5.5 M option for a fifth year, and a $250,000 buyout.
The big question was what kind of role Kang would play. Most of the speculation was that he would start off as a utility player on the bench, and would start his career in the majors. However, there were some questions about whether he would start, due to his salary, and whether he would begin the season in the minors. Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington answered both of those questions today in a conference call with the media.
“As he comes into camp, he will very much complement our existing Major League team,” Huntington said. “We are looking forward to confirming our beliefs about him as a shortstop. He has played some third. Our people feel he has every ability in the world to play some second. But right now he’ll come into camp as a complementary player that brings a lot of bat off the bench, that brings a lot of depth, and as he transitions and as he adjusts to Major League Baseball and to the United States in general, we look forward to helping him achieve his potential, which we believe to be a quality Major League player.”
Huntington added later that Kang is looking forward to his role growing as he shows the Pirates he is ready to take on more. However, he quieted the rumors that Kang is the long-term replacement for Neil Walker, as long as he lives up to expectations.
“There’s no set script that if he becomes what we expect him to be, we’re going to trade Player X or we’re going to move Player Y,” Huntington said, responding to a question about whether Kang could replace someone in the lineup in the future.
There was a debate earlier this week about whether Kang would challenge Jordy Mercer at shortstop, sparked by a quote from Kang saying he was confident he could outplay Mercer. Huntington said that Kang is a confident player, but that the way the quote was represented is not how he said it. The quote was pieced together from a series of questions, and wasn’t a direct challenge as it sounded. Huntington added that Kang was like any other major league player that believed they could start, citing Josh Harrison as an example of a guy who believed he should be a regular for years, prior to winning that role last year.
“He understands that Josh Harrison has earned every opportunity in the world that he has,” Huntington said. “Jordy Mercer has earned every opportunity in the world that he has. Neil Walker has earned every opportunity in the world that he has. And he understands that Pedro is in a transition process. He’s aware of our history of playing guys that play well. I think if you asked any one of our players if they go to a new organization and if they can be the starter in that role, the easy answer is yes.”
As for the chances of Kang starting off his career in the minors, Huntington said there was no chance of that happening.
“We have zero intent to send him to the minor leagues,” Huntington said. “Our belief is that the best way to transition him to Major League Baseball is by playing Major League Baseball.”
Huntington left Pirate City on Wednesday to meet Kang in Pittsburgh. It was the first time he met the infielder, and he said that he was impressed with the meeting.
“He’s intelligent. He’s confident. He’s passionate,” Huntington said. “He loves the game of baseball. And he’s looking forward to coming in and helping a team take the next step to get deeper into the post-season. And he’s excited for the challenges that Major League Baseball will present him.”
The Pirates weren’t unfamiliar with Kang. They had scouted him extensively, including seeing him live multiple times, talking about him to people who played in Korea, and watching an “exhaustive” amount of video. They even have a raw projection system aimed at comparing KBO stats to the United States, which comes with the challenge that Kang is the first hitter making the jump from the KBO.
Huntington said that the Pirates liked Kang’s offensive upside, his raw power, his ability to use the whole field with power, and his versatility on the field defensively. He also added an interesting note about Kang’s ability to adjust during the game, not just from at-bat to at-bat, but from pitch to pitch.
“What also intrigues us is his ability that he shows to adjust, not only as a game plan, but to different pitches and different parts of the zone,” Huntington said. “We talked with a number of pitchers that competed against him in Korea, and there was no one way you can get him out on a consistent basis.”
Kang will go to Arizona to train with his Nexen club, due to his desire to stay in his routine. He will join the Pirates in Bradenton when Spring Training begins next month.